Grace Elliott reached for the rosary around her neck when asked what happened to her stepson.
She brushed her long, curly grey locks over her shoulder and asked for a Kleenex — she said she’s been talking about drug addiction so much, she almost forgets it’s a part of her own story.
“It was May 17, nine years ago,” said Elliott, a Juneau yoga teacher and radio show host in her 50s. “I can’t believe it’s been that long.”
Elliott’s stepson, Ellery, was 24 when he died of a heroin overdose. It wasn’t immediately apparent what had happened to him. All they knew at was that he was in a coma.
“Initially they thought there was some sort of foul play, and the police were involved, so it took a while before I knew it was actually a heroin overdose,” she recalled. “There were so many things going on.”
After all the dust had settled, Elliott was left alone with her grief. It was a hard thing to deal with. For one, drug use is so stigmatized that studies show people naturally aren’t as sympathetic to parents who lose children to drug overdoses or suicide, compared to accidental deaths or natural causes.
Plus, Elliott was Ellery’s stepmom. Even though she considered Ellery “a child of my heart,” as she put it, society doesn’t acknowledge a stepmother’s grief as much as it does for the biological mother.
“It was this weird disenfranchised kind of grief,” she recalled.
Losing a family friend to a heroin overdose in September — 26-year-old Brenyer Haffner, one of six people who have died of a heroin overdose in Juneau this year — brought it all back.
She knew Haffner well — he was the same age as her son and they were classmates. Haffner had just attended Elliott’s daughter’s wedding a few weeks before he died.
“I started feeling like I needed to act,” she said.
It wasn’t just Haffner’s death, either. One of her son’s classmates committed suicide in May, and another died of a heroin overdose last year.
Elliott knew them all through her children and from working in the classrooms.
“We’re not just individuals suffering from grief anymore,” she said. “Our whole community is grieving. There’s a generation of people who are grieving the loss of their friends and classmates.”
Community of compassion
On a Wednesday evening in mid-October, Elliott greeted some 60 people as they filed into the KTOO 360 North Studio on Egan Drive, helped themselves to a bowl of chili and cornbread, and took a seat.
One by one, they went around the circle and introduced themselves. There were addicts in early recovery and long-term recovery, and their friends and family. There was a mother who lost a son to heroin, a man who lost his significant other, as well as the Haffners. The family has been open about Brenyer’s addiction and overdose in hopes of preventing similar deaths. Also attending was a high schooler concerned about his friends, a drug addiction counselor, the medical director of Rainforest Recovery and Juneau Police Department Chief Bryce Johnson.
All came for the same reason: to listen to one another.
It was the first meeting of its kind ever in Juneau. Elliott, who hosted it, called the event “Community of Compassion.”
The idea, she said, was to provide a space for people to “come together, meet each other and tell their stories and talk about what the truth of the matter is from their point of view.”
Elliott said it was the only way she could think of to begin healing as a community and to come up with long-term solutions to better treat heroin addiction in Juneau.
“I’m trying to deliberately keep this conversation open, and pull the camera back,” she said. “Drug addiction, heroin overdose, it’s just a symptom. It’s a big, loud, terrible symptom. But it’s just a symptom.”
With the guarantee of a “safe space” and anonymity (despite being held at a radio station the meeting was private, and photography and reporting were not allowed), people began to open up.
One mother talked about what her family went through with her son’s drug addiction. Many harped on the need for more and better options for treatment. Others complained about the police not doing enough, or for being too hard on addicts.
The event was emotional and intense, and many held back tears while they spoke. By the end of the two hours, the meeting had transformed into something else — a listening circle. It was just what Elliott was hoping for.
“We have extraordinary amounts of drug addiction, a side effect of that is the death,” she said in an interview before the event took place. “We have extraordinary amounts of suicide, that’s behavior that’s trying to communicate something to us as a community. Are we listening?”
Empowered Community Now
When Elliott lost her stepson, she said she felt like she didn’t have a place to go to be heard. She hopes this group can change that for others who have experienced loss.
Recently, she came up with a name for the group. It’s called “Empowered Community Now.”
“What I would like to do is empower people to support each other,” she said. “Juneau’s always had a lot of creative minds and people who know how to put things into motion, so what we’re doing is gathering our talents and we’re making a base and we’re going to build up off of that base. But first we have to meet each other and tell the story and empower each other to action.”
The October event was just the first of many to come, she said.
“We’re trying to do this differently,” she said. “There’s an instant reaction, and everybody wants to do something about it, and then that energy gets run out and it drops and something else comes along.”
The next forum will take place at the same location — KTOO’s 360 North Studio on Egan Drive — from 3-5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 15.
“This is open to anyone who believes that the power of community can actually truly change things,” she said.